“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” - Isaiah 9:6
Christian desire is to turn the eyes of all men upon the true Creator and Christ of Christmas.
God foretold his plan for humanity through the Hebrew prophets hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Isaiah wrote, “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed.”
And as it was prophesied, so it happened. It is written in Luke 2:7 that, “Mary gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
This well-known history of Christmas has always been shrouded in controversy. The date of Jesus Christ’s actual birth is unknown and is not recorded in the Bible. During the second and third centuries, we know church leaders disagreed about the appropriateness of birthday celebrations within the Christian Church. Some church leaders believed birthdays were pagan rituals for pagan gods. Also, because the date of Christ’s birth had not been biblically recorded, these early leaders speculated and argued about celebrating on any specific date.
Some sources report that these early church leaders first identified December 25 as the birth date of Christ. Many theories address the fact that this date was eventually chosen by the church bishops in Rome because it more closely aligned with a major pagan festival, the birth of the invincible sun god. Various early cultures in the Roman Empire had fallen into sun worship. Recognizing their dependence on the sun’s yearly course in the heavens, they held feasts around the winter solstice in December when the days are shortest. As part of their festivals, they built bonfires to give the sun god strength and bring him back to life again. When it became apparent that the days were growing longer, there would be great rejoicing. Therefore the church bishops in Rome agreed to celebrate Christ’s birth during the winter solstice in an attempt to Christianize these popular pagan celebrations.
To the Romans, the month of December marked the Festival of Saturnalia (Dec. 17-24). One of their most common customs during that festival was exchanging gifts to one another. The evergreen wreath also derives from the Saturnalia festival, during which homes were decorated with evergreen boughs. The Druids of England gathered sacred mistletoe for their ceremonies and decorated their homes with it. It is believed that the first Christmas tree was instituted by Boniface, an English missionary to Germany in the eighth century. He supposedly replaced sacrifices to the god Odin’s sacred oak with a fir tree adorned in tribute to Christ. Certain accounts claim that Martin Luther introduced the Christmas tree lighted with candles.
Santa Claus evolved from a Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened form for Saint Nicholas. St. Nicholas was a bishop in Turkey during the fourth century known for his extraordinary generosity. He was later associated with giving presents at the end of the year. St. Nicholas was adopted by the Netherlands as the patron saint of children. On St. Nicholas eve, the children would leave their shoes filled with hay for the saint’s white horse.
These festivities continue to this day. We are left with an unusual combination of pagan and Christian elements that have evolved into our modern celebration of Christmas.
By 336 A.D., the Roman Church calendar definitively records a nativity celebration by Western Christians on January 6. It is believed that the first celebrations of Christ’s birth were originally grouped together with Epiphany, one of the earliest feasts of the Christian church. This holiday recognized the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles by remembering the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem and in some traditions, the baptism of Jesus. Eastern churches maintained the January 6 commemoration together with Epiphany until sometime in the fifth or sixth centuries when the 25th day of December became the widely accepted holiday.
The term Christmas appeared in Old English as early as 1038 A.D. as Cristes Maesse and later as Cristes-Messe in A.D. 1131. It translates as “the Mass of Christ.” This name was established by the Christian Church to disconnect the holiday and its customs from its pagan origins. Christians declared this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it.
In 1843, Christmas was in decline as an English national holiday. The medieval Christmas celebration, very prominent on the calendar, with its Yule log, carols, public gift-giving, and of course, feasting, came under attack following the Protestant Reformation. Puritans in England and America denounced Christmas as a Catholic holiday. Christmas was actually banned in England in 1647 and in Boston in 1658. After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America’s new constitution.
But it was the Industrial Revolution (1750 to 1850) that threatened to put an end to Christmas as an English national holiday. Employers simply did not want to give their workers time off to celebrate. However, Charles Dickens rehabilitated the fading holiday he loved with his publication of A Christmas Carol and set the price of the book at five shillings, making it affordable for nearly everyone. Published the week before Christmas in 1843, the book was an instant sensation.
In the revival of Christmas, Queen Victoria embraced the new practice of sending Christmas cards, and her husband, Prince Albert, brought the custom of decorating a Christmas tree from his native Germany. The singing of carols, which had largely disappeared, began again. In America, a series of Christmas stories by Washington Irving and a decline in the influence of Puritanism helped revive Christmas. By 1860, fourteen states had adopted Christmas as a legal holiday and in 1870 Christmas was declared a federal holiday.
The Christian Christmas is a brief season (twelve days), beginning with Christmas Day, December 25, and continuing through the Name of Jesus until Epiphany. Christmas is a season of thankfulness for the goodness of God. The purpose of Jesus Christ’s birth was to save us from our sins, to reveal the Father to us and lead us to Him and to reveal the Kingdom of God so that we can live according to God’s Way. Jesus came to reconcile us to God so that we can have eternal life.
Regardless of the pagan background of many December traditions and whether or not Jesus was actually born on December 25th, our Christian desire is to turn the eyes of all men upon the true Creator and Christ of Christmas. The true light of the world has come. The Christmas season and celebration presents the church with an outstanding opportunity to preach the good news; that men can be made righteous and have peace with God through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.
Merry Christmas and God bless us, every one!